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Everything is Blue for Him: Schrader Strikes the Underbelly with Underrated Debut “Blue Collar” | Blu-ray Review

Paul Schrader’s early career is a mix of seminal classics and underappreciated gems. While he began as a screenwriter, penning a thorny trifecta of grimly masculine and formidably troubled characters for Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma (The Yakuza, Taxi Driver, Obsession), Schrader began his own directorial career with the unfortunately underseen Blue Collar, a 1978 dramatic thriller which starred Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto as a trio of auto workers who decide to rob their own union office only to discover the consequences far outweigh their gain.

A grueling shoot, partially due to the trenchant discord amongst the three leads, which led to a highly publicized incident wherein Pryor threatened Schrader with a gun, eventually leading to Schrader having a reported nervous breakdown.

Detroit auto workers Zeke (Pryor), Jerry (Keitel) and Smokey (Kotto) find themselves in dire economic situations with little to no help from their union steward (Lane Smith). Understanding the union to be a corrupt entity using them as wantonly as their employer, they decide to rob the union office only to discover the union is even more wayward than they’d anticipated. In the fallout of their crime, the three friends turn against one another with tragic consequences.

Whereas Schrader’s 1979 Hardcore became a gritty cult favorite and 1980’s American Gigolo became an iconic classic, Blue Collar, despite its initial critical acclaim, isn’t as beloved. Despite the reported difficulties, Pryor is fascinating in one of his earliest and infrequent dramatic bits (one can feel Schrader resisting the actor’s predilection for comedic asides) and the films is not devoid of chemistry between the three leads (a group orgy, where Pryor and Keitel swordfight with dildos remains an interesting sight to see).

Schrader’s handling of capitalism’s underbelly, as a machine requiring the exploited labor of the working class and their constant manipulation against one on another is exemplified in a tone more closely associated with French cinema, and Blue Collar bears similarity to a number of Gallic titles depicting the harsh reality of strikes on the working class, such as Marin Karmitz’s woefully underseen Beat for Beat (1972) or Stephane Brize’s more recent At War (2018). Ed Begley Jr. and Cliff De Young are also on hand in supporting roles.

Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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